Sunday, May 3, 2015

Reservoir Dogs (1992) ****

Quentin Tarantino's debut film Reservoir Dogs took the world of cinema by storm in 1992. Most American movies at that time were formulaic mediocrities with paint by numbers scripts. Independent films, usually politically driven, were starting to hit the mainstream as an alternative to Hollywood. Tarantino merged his mainstream sensibilities with a literary approach to storytelling.

Tarantino's story's been told many times.  A High School dropout raised by a single mother, at 16 he started working at an X-Rated movie theater in Los Angeles. After knocking around at various odd jobs he landed a position at Video Archives, a now famous video store.  While there Quentin spent hours watching every kind of film imaginable from Hong Kong Cinema to the French New Wave.  He spent hours debating movies with co-workers who all dreamed of making it in the film industry.

Eventually he began writing scripts and working on a low budget film, My Best Friend's Birthday.  One of his scripts Reservoir Dogs miraculously fell into the hands of Harvey Keitel who played a pivotal role in getting the film made.

The opening scene of Reservoir Dogs broke all the rules of how to start a movie with a group of professional criminals we know little about in extended discussions over pop song lyrics and the ethics of tipping a restaurant server. The story is told backwards and sideways. We get fragments of exposition, the planning of the heist, and the bloody aftermath all fitting like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.  A heist film where we never see the heist!

The actors Tarantino assembled including Keitel as the seasoned pro, Steve Buscemi as the hothead, Chris Penn as "Nice Guy" Eddie, Tim Roth as the undercover cop, Michael Madsen as the sociopath, and Lawrence Tierney as the boss - all turned Tarantino's dialogue into music.  

And who are these men? Tarantino's throwback masculinity provoked audiences  As white males of the underclass they have their own sense of honor. They frequently drop the "N" word and make derisive comments aimed at women and gays.  Like Peckinpah's Wild Bunch, they know their choice of life probably means they are doomed to a violent demise.

The culture and conflicts of the 70s reign ever present in the soundtrack, the cultural references, the cars, and the KBILLY radio station.  The legacy of the Vietnam War looms ghost like over the film, a conflict Gen X watched play out on TV when they were kids.  As the war ended discussions on what went wrong were filled with rancor and bathos.  Many of the scenes in Reservoir Dogs are all about the heist and "What Went Wrong?" 

Often considered ultra-violent, Reservoir Dogs is actually far less violent than any Rambo or Die Hard film - or any superhero movie for that matter.  It's the way Tarantino presents the violence that irks some critics.  Asking the audience to actually feel and participate in the violence is a place "action" movies rarely go.  As many other critics have pointed out, the 1991 Gulf War played on television with audiences never seeing the aftermath of the violence.  In Reservoir Dogs blood is spilled and violence does have consequences.

Great films come in such supply.  A precious few never lose their energy and pick up momentum with each viewing.  Reservoir Dogs belongs in that category.















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